The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism

Image of The Mendacity of Hope: Barack Obama and the Betrayal of American Liberalism
Release Date: 
October 4, 2010
Harper Collins
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For the better part of this year, newspapers, magazines, the blogosphere, radio, TV, and bookstores have been filled with analyses of how President Obama squandered his initial popularity by pushing big government programs like the stimulus and health care reform, tilting too far leftward, and ignoring the vast middle of the electorate. Now along comes Roger D. Hodge, a former editor-in-chief of Harper’s magazine, arguing in his new book The Mendacity of Hope that actually, Obama hasn’t been liberal enough.

Hello? Is Hodge crazy? Or is the rest of the world?

Presumably, the November 2010 elections will help answer those questions. (If the Democrats maintain control of the House and/or Senate, it would probably mean that Americans have not shifted drastically rightward and may even agree with Hodge that Obama should be more assertively liberal.)

And even if every single person in the U.S. disagrees with Hodge, that in a way is a stronger reason to publish and read his book. We need a plethora of viewpoints. We need someone to stand up and say, “Conventional wisdom has no clothes!”

But Hodge, sadly, has no clothes either.

He destroys his credibility right in Chapter One when he blithely claims that “By the end of Obama’s first year in office, after a decisive election victory, with not only a majority in both houses of Congress but a supermajority of sixty votes in the Senate, the Democrats . . . had squandered both the goodwill of the general public and the political momentum behind their signature initiatives.”

Does Hodge read the newspapers? Can he count? A technical majority of 51 votes in the Senate is meaningless when the GOP minority invokes the threat of a filibuster at every period and comma it doesn’t like. And the supposed Democratic supermajority existed for only the seven months between the time Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota was seated, in early July 2009, until Republican Scott Brown of Massachusetts took office, in early February 2010—and even that supermajority required the cooperation of conservative Democrats like Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Independent Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, whom Hodges singles out for special diatribes.

(For instance, just a few pages after mentioning the supposedly impregnable supermajority, Hodge sniffs, “I do not believe that he [Obama] or any other politician, with the exception of Joe Lieberman, acts out of conscious desire for the bad.” So Lieberman consciously wants to do bad—but he will still support legislation Hodge considers good?) In short, Obama did not have the votes to pass the progressive measures Hodge so ardently desires.

Moreover, Hodge sets his standards impossibly high. Obama’s “top collective donor” in his senatorial election was—horrors!—the University of Chicago. Compared to, say, the Tobacco Institute or the NRA, that might seem a fairly benign source of funding, but it’s not pure enough for Hodge. Then, after he trashes Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, economic advisor Lawrence Summers, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and many more, it’s not clear just whom he would be willing to seat in Obama’s Cabinet. Mother Teresa, perhaps?

The book is also too quick to dismiss some significant differences between what Obama has done or advocated, versus standard Republican positions. Hodge acknowledges that the president would include “effective labor provisions, better environmental regulations, the prohibition of child labor and of currency manipulation, and better copyright and patent protections” in trade agreements.

Nevertheless, he reduces that point to a dependent clause as he pursues his thesis that Obama is following the dictates of Wall Street in endorsing any trade pacts at all. Just ask a sweatshop worker in Bangladesh or a farmer whose land has been ruined by oil spills in Nigeria if “effective labor provisions” or “better environmental regulations” are unimportant.

On the positive side, Hodge is a colorful writer with some powerful and original turns of phrase (albeit too fond of heavy-handed sarcasm). So the book is a fun read. It’s a shame that his good writing is wasted on weak arguments.